By John Krull
November 6, 2023
INDIANAPOLIS—Once upon a time….
Those four words are among the saddest and yet most hopeful in the English language.
A crowd gathers on a bright November day to dedicate an outdoor classroom at Holliday Park in memory of the late Susan Bayh, once first lady of Indiana.
Those who have come are mostly—maybe even overwhelmingly—in their 60s and 70s, veterans of Indiana’s political clashes. They now are the old guard, the keepers of memory and history, survivors of days now past.
Once, though—once upon a time—they were the vanguard, the voices and faces of change, the young Turks who hoped to revitalize, even remake, their Democratic Party, their state, even their country.
But that was long ago, when the world was a younger place.
The ceremony is brief but moving.
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett—an intimate member of the Bayh political family—excuses the informality of his appearance. It’s late in his campaign for re-election to a third term and he’s been hitting the hustings, so he stands before the lectern in blue jeans and running shoes as he tells his favorite Susan Bayh story.
It concerned the birth of her twin sons, Beau and Nick, on Election Day in 1995 and a clueless male gaffe Hogsett made as she approached delivery. As Hogsett speaks, the twins—now both tall young men in their late 20s—stand behind the mayor with their father, Evan, a former Indiana governor and U.S. senator.
All three laugh when Hogsett delivers his punch line, but their laughter is wistful, sadness mixed with humor.
When Evan Bayh speaks about his late wife, his voice breaks as he describes some consolation President Joe Biden offered him and his sons at Susan’s memorial service. The president lost his first wife and infant daughter in a car crash 50 years ago and then his eldest son in 2015 to the same brain cancer that killed Susan Bayh.
Biden told the Bayh men there would come a time when the memory of their loved one would bring a smile to their lips, not a tear to their eyes.
I’ve known Evan Bayh for nearly 40 years. In all that time, I’ve marveled at his emotional discipline, a product, I’ve always suspected, of being in the public eye almost from birth. In such circumstances, carving out space for a private self demands great effort of will.
I’ve never known him to let the wall down in public, never seen him reveal his inner self to an audience.
Now, though, as he recounts Biden’s counsel, Evan’s voice trembles. He stands silent for a moment, fighting to contain himself. As he struggles to master his emotions, his sons look down at the ground.
Time mollifies some feelings of loss.
But not all of them.
When Evan and Susan Bayh emerged as potent forces in Indiana politics decades ago, their lives were treated as if they belonged in a fairy tale. They were so bright and so good-looking that it was easy to see them as a prince and princess come to guarantee a happy ending.
But they didn’t.
Because life is not a fairy tale.
The Bayhs had their disappointments, as all people do.
I remember Evan calling me long, long ago after Susan had suffered a miscarriage a couple of years before the twins were born. News of her pregnancy had leaked before husband and wife wanted it out, another reminder of how they had to guard what little private space they possessed.
In a column, I empathized with their sense of violation. But I hoped, I wrote, that they could take some comfort from the sympathy people felt for their loss.
When he called, Evan was as polite and dignified as ever, but it was impossible not to hear the disappointment and grief in his voice.
Now, I watch him, a man in his late 60s, striving both to be strong for his sons and to honor his late wife and her memory.
Some fairy tale.
After the speeches, people in the crowd linger near the space that now bears Susan Bayh’s name. It is a lovely spot, surrounded by trees that were here when our ancestors were children.
People tell Susan Bayh stories, tales of days gone by when a bright, beautiful couple stepped forward to lead them.
Once upon a time.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College.
Bill Moreau, publisher of The Indiana Citizen, worked for U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh during his last term and for Evan Bayh, when he was Secretary of State and Governor of Indiana.